Thirty years ago, there was no escaping the voice of Phil Collins. He was seemingly everywhere, as if he was the world's first successful cloning experiment.
There was Phil Collins, the lead vocalist that led Genesis, the once-progressive rock outfit, into the Top 40 towards a No. 1 hit. Meanwhile, along came Phil Collins, the Grammy-winning, multi-million-selling solo artist with three No. 1 singles and still yet another Phil Collins, the movie soundtrack composer with three No. 1 singles including the timeless "Against All Odds." All three variations of Collins were in heavy rotation simultaneously and his voice was stuck in your head, even if you weren't near a radio or MTV. Only the deceased were unaware of him and surely some of the living wished to join them.
His recent announcement to come out of retirement and return to the stu-studio and also re-release previous records came tethered to a lot of press on "Phil Collins." There was much talk about Adele contacting him to collaborate on her new album and his rather bitter reaction when she later became elusive, dropping his and many other collaborator's efforts before release. Ironically, The Telegraph's recent review mentions the 80s influence on "25," the superstar's latest with "nods to Phil Collins" and others. Undoubtedly, "Against All Odds," resurrected by a recent ESPN basketball advertisement, is exactly the type of song Adele would sing. All of this points to an inevitable Phil Collins resurgence and this became the basis of that short-lived online petition of protest against any future Phil Collins music. Perhaps the rebirth truly began with Patrick Bateman's monologue in American Psycho and with that as example, it's time for another rambling on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Phil Collins phenomenon.
As our popular culture moves forward, it embraces old trends to repeat and comes literally back to the future. Hollywood's TV and film remakes, vinyl record re-pressings, and older bands reforming are all here to cash in on a nostalgic public that loves to rewind. There is little wonder that Phil Collins wants to make a comeback but why now? Perhaps it’s the public's continuing affection for the ’80s. Maybe there's an audience out there that can look back and appreciate the actual songwriting, and a voice devoid of Auto-Tune? Regardless, for humor or even worse to some, Phil Collins has become a topic again, even if it’s just to remind the trolls that once again, it’s really cool to bash on what was already the ultimate easy target. Hey "South Park," you reading this?
But seriously, it’s extremely unlikely that any future releases would have the capability of suffocating all of us like Collins’ ’80s records did. Besides, the man is well aware of his status as the "most hated man in rock." He has said in interviews that people had become sick of him and upon retiring in 2011, he felt that no one would miss him. He describes all of the airplay and his multiplicity as "incessant," and has apologized while maintaining that he never "intended for any of that to happen." It's not often an artist apologizes for becoming too popular. It is now okay for anybody living through his output in the ’80s to adopt the hipster's vernacular, "I liked him better before he got popular, before he was cool."
It's unlikely that he was ever really looked at as being "cool" but the earlier career of Phil Collins was quite respectable many years before he would become a pop phenomenon. Most notable was his tenure as the drummer of Genesis. Famous percussionists described him as being an inspiration with a list that includes Taylor Hawkins, Mike Portnoy, and Neil Peart. When Genesis' vocalist, Peter Gabriel, left, it was Collins who took the driver's seat, having flown co-pilot singing backup vocals with Gabriel. And he still continued playing Genesis shows on the drum kit part-time. His resume outside that band is extensive and includes drum work for Brand X, Robert Plant, Brian Eno and Led Zeppelin. Actually, nearly any producer in the music industry could tell you to push aside all of that about his being hated, because it is truly his gated-reverb drum sound that dominated nearly all popular music recordings of the ’80s.
There is no denying that Collins churned out a lot of cheese with lyrics that weren't always that sharp. Composing so many songs with seemingly the same cheap Casio-sounding drum machine, the same sterile keyboards and then quite often, an Earth, Wind & Fire horn section that sounded surprisingly synthetic, his songs became a musical formula. He also had a lyrical format. Utilizing the drama of an ugly divorce as inspiration, he inevitably became a melodramatic master of breakup songs some 25 years before Taylor Swift. After the ’80s, much of this formula had grown tired and he became a caricature of himself even without help from "South Park." Yet, when you are in the business of manufacturing cheese, you keep churning, producing stuff like the embarrassment "I Can't Dance." In looking through all he's packaged to list 10 decent songs, we've gotta stick to the ’80s, arguably Phil Collins at his best. Ultimately, it's all processed but here's a few that have aged better.
10. "Don’t Lose My Number" (1985)
There is just no escaping that this is an ’80s record and this catchy.. ahem, number literally sounds as if it was written for you to practice the Carlton dance. About absolutely nothing, the song went to No. 4 in '85 and the term guilty pleasure comes to mind. Actually, we could probably spread that term generously all over much of Collins' catalog with the exception of "Sussudio," which was strangled to death by it's own dated sound.
9. "I Missed Again" (1981)
Sounding slightly more organic than usual, Collins taps ’70s-style R&B, recalling Curtis Mayfield or the Spinners. As part of what he described as "therapy," this track on his first solo record, "Face Value," deals with divorce issues but most of the soul searching here is more in musical terms as you can feel Collins doing his best to grasp the essence of R&B. His own lyrics can be applied here: "You can feel it all around you, but it's something you just can't touch." Don't ever watch the video...or do because it's below.
8. "Inside Out" (1985)
The Genesis hit, "Tonight, tonight, tonight" with it's infamous, "Oh-Oh" may have a close cousin in "Inside Out." A simple message of "I'm ready to take charge of my life" is delivered with big drums and just the right three major piano chords. It’s not a number on the charts but it was performed live quite a bit as it lends itself to waking the energy up a bit between so many ballads.
7. "Against All Odds" (1984)
Pick a power ballad cliche.. any cliche. Grand Piano? Check. Lyrics that describe the struggle for a great proclamation or triumph? Check. Slow but powerful drum fills to add dynamics? Check. Build string section to a soaring crescendo and have everything return to the same tenderness as the beginning? Check. I don't know who first started writing saccharine-saturated songs like this but in spite of its predictability, there is just no way to deny that this particular Grammy winner works.
6. "Man on the Corner" (1981)
The blurred lines between Genesis and Phil Collins' solo material may have begun here. He fires up the Roland drum machine, adds some simple keys and piles on big drums midway to conclusion. The first of two songs about the plight of the homeless (revisited on 1989's "Another Day in Paradise), this moody track, although quite minimal, manages to carry more weight than we would come to expect later in his career.
5. "I Don’t Care Anymore" (1982)
Phil's drum sound and classic tom fills are such a staple, he can use them over and over and even write an entire song around them as he did on "I Don't Care Anymore." Brilliantly minimal and atmospheric, the plodding reverberated beat sounds almost industrial, providing the perfect foundation for the fact that there's not a whole lot more to say lyrically as it is undoubtedly the fury of failed marriage. Years later, it was included as part of the music played in the popular violent video game, "Grand Theft Auto." Trent Reznor had to have been influenced by this track in some way.
4. "We Said Hello, Goodbye (Don’t Look Back)" (1985)
The extra song included on the CD of "No Jacket Required," this gem transcends Phil's conventional musical trademarks. The chord progression and melody are big and open, somewhat like vintage Elton John with notes of McCartney or Eric Carmen. It's an uplifting bouquet without a lot of sediment and even his vocals back off on the amount of his typical beltings of, " OH-OH… " Like a bonus track, it was omitted from the vinyl pressings but a different version can be heard in the film "Playing For Keeps."
3. "Misunderstanding" (1980)
A Genesis track that remains one of Collins' best sentiments. He sings about having a date with a girl who doesn't show up and his emphasis on a "misunderstanding" is very telling of the sort of emotion that no one wants to process as they slowly realize that things aren't as they had believed. In one of the last lines, we learn he had gone to her house and saw another man leaving (if ears could blink, you'd miss it). Collins' simple story is a testament of his ease in writing on such themes and obviously he had much more to come.
2. "In The Air Tonight" (1981)
The Phil Collins signature song with the world's most popular drum break that always sparks reactions from listeners every time they hear it. From "Face Value," the song is about -- yes, you guessed it -- the dark side of divorce. But interestingly, there is a longstanding urban legend that the song is about witnessing a drowning. Collins claims to have improvised the lyrics while playing with the Roland drum machine that served as a therapeutic writing tool.
1. "Take Me Home" (1985)
This song, in its simplicity, is big on spirit and was an end-of-the-concert audience participation number for quite some time. Straying from marital woes, Collins was said to have been inspired by "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" in detailing the perspective of a patient in a mental health facility. This is one of those songs in which Collins voice is very convincing and the manner in which he can emphasize key lines in the song makes this one standout. "There's a fire that's been burning, right outside my door, I can't see it, I feel it, and it helps to keep me warm," he sings as the mental patient in first person. With its hypnotic world-music synthetic percussion, It nearly sounds as if it could be on Peter Gabriel's "So" album, but if that observation sounds as crazy as the mental patient, there is a bit of validation: Gabriel sings on the track.
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